Personal response ‘L’amour de court’

Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary ‘L’amour de court’


Henri Cartier-Bresson comes across as a darling of a man, his simple answers and unassuming way makes for interesting viewing. Early on in part one he says:

‘What matters is to look, but people don’t look, most of them don’t look, they press the button’ (Cartier-Bresson; Part One; 1:21)

I believe he alludes to the way people snap a picture but do not really look or see, they do not observe the world around them. This is even more relevant in the digital world, when memory cards replace film and people can snap away without thought or decision. It appears he is always looking at what is around him even when in conversation with a friend; he takes images whilst on the move. His friend says of Henri in the documentary ‘While others are distracted and unobservant, Henri is on the lookout ready to react’

‘To learn to look is to go to the Louvre’ (Cartier-Bresson)

There is no lessons in seeing or looking, I believe Henri, who appears naturally inquisitive, suggests that to learn to look is to take it upon yourself to investigate. To look at the work of others and to open your eyes to it.

In part two Henri Cartier-Bresson looks at his now famous and iconic decisive image of the leaping man in Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare. ‘You couldn’t see the man leaping?’ Cartier-Bresson is asked, ‘No’ Cartier-Bresson replies.

‘Its always luck’, ‘It’s luck that matters’ (Cartier-Bresson; Part two; 1:00)

It was apparently taken in between two planks and Cartier-Bresson himself did not see the image through the viewfinder. He was obviously inquisitive by nature, taking an image based on something he could not see clearly? This is apparently one of only two images of Cartier-Bressons that were ever cropped in post production. In fact he mentions later in the documentary that he didn’t see his photographs as he would post his rolls of film to Paris or Bombay where they would then be developed. What mattered to him seems to be simply documenting what he saw.

He puts a great deal of success for a photograph in its geometry; he intuitively knows the ratios and proportions to make an image work. He cites:

‘1.618…3.1416…The golden number’ (Cartier-Bresson; Part two; 2:00)

This is the Fibonacci sequence or otherwise known as the golden ratio. He is evidently self-critical of his images, He is even seen to ask in part five of the documentary to either write a comment on or have removed images that he is not happy with for the National Library despite the obvious praise from others. The way he himself sees the photograph appears more important than the accolades bestowed on it, he appears to be a perfectionist.

He displays a warm sense of wit throughout the documentary and it is apparent from the comments that he holds many other ‘artists’ in high regard. He claims to have stopped taking photographs despite still seeing the opportunities to take them but is now focused on drawing and perhaps seeing through his pencil rather than his lens.

Has this documentary changed my view of the decisive moment? Not really, I still think the decisive image is one where the action in the image, composition and photographer collide. However I think there is more luck involved, perhaps it is more about photographing what you see and understanding the deeper meaning of what you are seeing not simply snapping what is in front of you. Then luck might have it that you caught the moment and the composition falls into place, but what matters most is to see! 

Thoughts on ‘The decisive moment’

I wanted to explore my thoughts on this phrase BEFORE I started to read and research into so that I could compare my views and ideas surrounding it.

Decisive – adjective

1. having the power or quality of deciding; putting an end to controversy; crucial or most important:

Your argument was the decisive one.

2. characterized by or displaying no or little hesitation; resolute; determined:

The general was known for his decisive manner
(, viewed 19.01.2017)
A decisive moment therefore is one of decision, deciding the crucial or important moment, displaying little or no hesitation.
In terms of photography and more importantly street photography this seems to relate to the photographer as ‘their’ decisive moment. But what if we were trying to capture a subjects decisive moment? We cannot know what is decisive to them or are we looking for a turning point, similar to decisive moments in history?
If we are looking to capture an image of someone jumping over a puddle for example who is the decisive one? The man could have made the decision to jump moments before and we have merely captured his action, therefore this would be an action shot. Or does the decisive moment belong to the photographer in which it is his decision in that split second moment to press the button? He saw the man and the composition align and did not hesitate.
I believe the decisive moment lies with the photographer, we cannot read minds, we cannot ‘see’ when subjects have made a decision, we can only see the action and consequence.
The decisive moment is pushing the button when the photographer sees that everything is aligned…subject, composition and moment.
This therefore means that the decisive moment could be a variety of subjects, but there needs to be an action or movement. An image of a static object such as an orange would not offer much in terms of a decisive moment, not unless you waited for the moment the fruit started to turn. Street photography is an obvious choice as subjects are full of action and choosing areas for composition could provide an interesting image. But landscapes can offer a decisive moment, the moment when the sun sets, shadows fall or the clouds change for example.

Exercise 3.3

1. What do the timeframes of the camera actually look like? If you have a manual film camera, open the camera back (make sure there’s no film in the camera first!) and look through the shutter as you press the shutter release. What is the shortest duration in which your eyes can perceive a recognisable image in bright daylight?
Describe the experiment in your learning log.
2. Find a good viewpoint, perhaps fairly high up (an upstairs window might do) where you can see a wide view or panorama. Start by looking at the things closest to you in the foreground. Then pay attention to the details in the middle distance and, finally, the things towards the horizon. Now try and see the whole landscape together, from the foreground to horizon (you can move your eyes). Include the sky in your observation and try to see the whole visual field together, all in movement (there is always some movement). When you’ve got it, raise your camera and take a picture.
Add the picture and a description of the process to your learning log.


Research point

Watch the Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary ‘L’amour de court’  (‘Just plain love’, 2001) available in five parts on YouTube:
Write a personal response to the film in the contextual section of your learning log, taking care to reference properly any quotations you use (300–500 words).
• Whenever you read or watch something, get into the habit of putting anything you take directly from the source in quotation marks and note down full bibliographic details. If you do this, you won’t have to spend ages hunting for half-remembered references later – and you won’t inadvertently plagiarise someone else’s work. Always use Harvard referencing; print out the study guide on the student website and keep this to hand.
• Be very careful about what you put on your blog. Take a moment now to read what the OCA learning blog study guide says about copyright law and fair use or fair dealing.
Today the decisive moment is often criticised for having become something of a stylistic cliché. In the decades after the 1930s, the most creative phase of Cartier-Bresson’s street photography, thousands of photographers learned the techniques of the ‘moment décisif’ – leading inevitably, perhaps, to derivative work.
Another criticism of the decisive moment is that it somehow just misses the point of our contemporary situation. Reviewing Paul Graham’s recent photobook The Present, Colin Pantall writes:

…what he [Graham] wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for.

Zouhair Ghazzal agrees that the decisive moment has become more of a cliché than a reality, although he believes it can contain something essential of life.  But in a similar way to Pantall’s interpretation of Graham’s work, Ghazzal finds the contemporary urban landscape just ‘too monotonous and dull’ for the decisive moment.
Despite these criticisms, Cartier-Bresson does still seem to speak of something essential in photography. ‘Observational skills’ are mentioned in the assessment criteria but unfortunately there are no sure methods available to learn how to look. As with composition, it would seem to be something that is just discovered (or re-discovered?) for oneself.

Project 3 – ‘What matters is to look’

‘I slipped the camera through [the railings] but I couldn’t see, that’s why it’s a bit blurry… I couldn’t see a thing through the viewer.’ ‘You couldn’t see the man leaping?’ ‘No.’ ‘That was lucky.’ ‘It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters, you have to be receptive, that’s all. Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance, that’s all. If you want it, you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens.’
(Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘L’amour tout court’,

Quite incredible, isn’t it, that one of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century was down to luck? Luck, chance, ‘hazard’ – whatever it may be, the influence of Cartier-Bresson has been profound, both in photojournalism through the Magnum agency, which he co-founded, and in street photography generally.
Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) discovered another of the possibilities of 35mm cameras and high-speed film which he described as the ‘decisive moment’: the ‘moment at which the elements in motion are in balance’.